(The following is a Reflection on Fr. Francisco Perez-Lerena, S.J. written by Father Willie.)
You can imagine my excitement when after spending two years away from home in a little town 70 miles west of Baton Rouge I was assigned to head back to Miami. Those two years of novitiate in Grand Coteau were filled with moments of incredible grace, not without struggle. The great beautiful oaks of this sleepy Louisiana town were drenched with hanging moss that resembled a scene right out of a Walker Percy novel (or “The Walking Dead” if you ventured out at night). The only sign of modernity was the one street light that managed the largest intersection in town, located right on the corner of the Jesuit campus. But even that contraption would begin to blink pathetically at 10 p.m. indicating to all residents that they should be in bed. There was no question that the place was perfect for centering my spirit and testing my young vocation.
Just before taking vows, the provincial had informed me that I would be assigned to Miami for a mix of work and studies. Miami! There the street lights seem to always be on high alert and the only moss to speak of would eventually play for the Minnesota Vikings. Miami was my home, my hood, and it was filled with my people, my posse. I had no idea what exactly I would be doing while I was there, but it didn’t matter. I would be back in the Magic City and loving life.
Shortly after arrival and the typical pleasantries exchanged with the members of the Jesuit community, I was informed that Fr. Francisco Perez-Lerena, S.J. would be assigned as my tutor. The provincial had entrusted him with my education for two years. I confess this terrified me and had me wishing I was still back praying rosaries in the mossy bayous of Louisiana.
The concern stemmed from the simple fact that Fr. Paco was well known in our province for being a scholar. He knew the history of our Society better than anyone. Latin, Greek, and several other languages rolled off his tongue with such ease that he would spontaneously break into one and leave you perplexed as to what he was saying. The funny thing is that he never translated what he said for you, expecting that you would “obviously” understand what he said and meant. I rarely did.
Fr. Paco was a legend in his own time. A fiercely proud graduate of the Colegio de Belén class of 1944, he had entered the Society of Jesus a few years after graduation. Attracted by the great Jesuit scholars who would roam the hallways of “the palace of education” and having read the heroic stories of the courageous missionaries that ventured off to Japan and China to evangelize peasants and emperors alike, he felt called.
He was a scholar. His voracious reading habit (one that he continued to the time of his death) and ability to absorb the information landed him in some of the most prestigious universities the Society had to offer. Of these, he spoke most fondly of his time at Innsbruck in Austria. It wasn’t too long after ordination that he was entrusted with great responsibilities in the province. They say that the two most important roles in the Society of Jesus are that of provincial and novice master. Fr. Paco was both.
But he wasn’t all brain. After serving as president of Belen Jesuit in Miami in the early 80s, he had a chance encounter with a young black man that he met in downtown Miami. A drug addict and down on his luck, he went to Fr. Paco for help. Moved by this young man’s plight, Father worked with him until his untimely death. This experience moved him deeply and made him realize that he needed to do something about it. Thus, was born Regis House. Against all odds, Fr. Paco founded this drug rehab center in Little Havana that for over 25 years has been serving the most at-risk youth in Miami.
So, as you can imagine, after reading his resume, I was a bit anxious about taking him on as my tutor.
The area of study that first year would be Spanish literature followed by a second year of Cuban. I thought, after having spent four years at Belen Jesuit taking Spanish with some extraordinary teachers, what more could I possibly learn? Wow, did I learn. Fr. Paco was a meticulous teacher. Without the use of textbooks, he started me off with some of the greatest writers and poets that the world had ever known. Occasionally, he would hand me a photocopy of a poem and explain the structure, rhyme, and feel of the work. He described the context of when it was written so that I had insight to the why it was written. What most impressed me was while he handed me the sheet, he would recite the poem from memory and change the tone of his voice depending on the line. He clearly understood what the author wanted to convey and he wanted me to understand it as well.
With his thick, dark-rimmed glasses that he would remove only to read, Fr. Paco would lecture for hours. For me, the problem was not sitting with this scholarly man in a dark lit room in the back of the Guiteras Library, it was the expectation he had that I would memorize the poems myself. My memory was not bad. As a matter of fact, I could recite the names of every NFL and MLB team on command, but poetry… not my strength. Fr. Paco would have none of that. If he was going to help raise a Jesuit, then he wanted to help raise one who could sit with scholars or ruffians equally. “How can you minister to the souls of men if you can’t understand their song,” he would say. It was challenging, but his passion for the material spurred me on.
I confess that after so many years since that time I remember few if any poems. Except one. One poem rings clearly to this day in my obnoxiously cluttered memory.
¿Qué tengo yo que mi amistad procuras?
¿Qué interés se te sigue, Jesús mío,
que a mi puerta cubierta de rocío
pasas las noches del invierno escuras?
¡Oh cuanto fueron mis entrañas duras,
pues no te abrí! ¡Que extraño desvarío,
si de mi ingratitud el hielo frío
secó las llagas de tus plantas puras!
¡Cuantas veces el Ángel me decía:
“Alma, asómate ahora a la ventana,
verás con cuanto amor llamar porfía”!
¡Y cuantas, hermosura soberana,
“Mañana le abriremos,” respondía,
para lo mismo responder mañana!
I don’t know if the great Spanish poet, Lope de Vega, would be moved by the fact that almost 400 years since he wrote the poem, a middle-aged Jesuit in Miami can still recite it, but I do hope that my tutor, Fr. Paco, is proud that I can.
May you rest in peace!
Fr. Willie ‘87